WTF is Transmedia?

If you have even half a toe in the transmedia community, you've seen by now that we're embroiled in a new round of definition debates, sparked by an impassioned post by Brooke Thompson -- be sure to read the comments. And then the next post, and the comments on that one. See some of the debate on Twitter. There's miles more of that iceberg, if you Google around a little.

I've watched as I could but mostly kept quiet while the discussion unfolded, and as a lot of smart, creative people channeled their passion into trying to identify what the hell is this thing we all care about so much. I didn't have much to add. But now that the dust has all but settled, I find that I do have my own two cents to throw into the ring.

They weren't going to fit into 140 characters or a comment on someone else's post, anyway, as it turns out.

Readers beware; you won't find very much clarity here, or even a new definition, really. Just whistling in the dark. But maybe all of us can work to write the end of this tune.

The Stakes

Last year, I suggested that the reason the definition mattered was so people like me could have a name to call themselves in order to get work. And I won't lie, the word transmedia has been very good to me.

But the stakes are even higher than I realized at the time. This isn't just about being allowed to call yourself the hot buzzword; it's a lot more serious. It's about getting professional accreditation, which brings along with it industry recognition and benefits like health insurance. It's about access to funding, which can determine whether or not you get to make your project at all. When the definition finally collapses into something -- or lapses into disuse -- it will have real and significant implications.

And unfortunately, when you're drawing a definition centered around you and your work -- and I'm definitely guilty of doing this myself -- you may be inadvertently telling somebody else, "No, what you do isn't transmedia." (Or, sometimes even if that's not what we're saying, that's what they're hearing, which is just as bad, if not worse.)

I don't know about you, but this is why I find myself bristling and getting a little defensive whenever the subject comes up. I want my work to count, you know?

So here we are: The three-platforms rule excludes stuff like Cthalloween, and unhappiness ensues. The immersive/pervasive angle excludes Star Wars, and unhappiness ensues. But deep in my heart of hearts, I want a definition that includes all of this stuff, if I could just think of something.

Spiderweb vs. Sequential

I rambled a lot but didn't offer a very good, solid definition in the 2010 version of this post. A few months later, I suggested this:

trans-me-di-a (n.)

1. A method for telling a story via multiple communication channels used simultaneously.
2. A method for telling a story via the communication channels your audience already uses in their everyday lives.

But you can see, even then, that I was trying to make peace between two opposing concepts of what transmedia could or should be. I hadn't quite squirreled out what they were yet. I think now I may be a little closer to putting my finger on it, and on why it is we can't all just shrug and agree to throw a dart to pick a definition and stick with that.


It's my understanding through hearsay on Twitter that our godfather Henry Jenkins modified his own definition of transmedia this year. Something about family resemblances and patterns of behavior.

Just this hearsay, though, was enough to spark a subtly different way for me to look at this whole transmedia thing. I've been trying to use one word and two definitions to include Star Wars and Perplex City and Cthalloween all together, because they seem basically the same to me. But what is the underlying commonality there?

I've been thinking, maybe it's fragmentation. Let's try this on for size: A transmedia story is one where fragmentation is a key characteristic, with the purpose of inducing the audience into actively seeking out multiple pieces of the story.

This is what we're trying to get at with phrases like "greater than the sum of its parts" and "a single cohesive story."

Star Wars fits the bill to my liking, and so does Cthalloween. As I see it, they're both examples of fragmented story, just on different ends of a spectrum: One is really big fragments, and one is really small ones. In both cases, you could stop at just one piece... but both of these projects are designed to encourage you to seek and consume multiple pieces, because you get a better view into the story and story world that way.


Of course there's a catch. This leaves open the door for just about any kind of serial fiction or sequel to count as transmedia. And then again, does merely purchasing another piece of story to consume (the next book, the next show, the next film) count as that seeking behavior? And if it doesn't, why not?

Is "key characteristic" enough to exclude stuff that intuition tells us shouldn't count, like, say, the Game of Thrones series of books, or epic fantasy series as a whole? What about any comic book at all?

And what about Star Wars? Is the expanded universe greater than the sum of its parts, or isn't it? It's an easier judgement call with The Matrix, where the story on one platform directly informs and explains events on another.

I'd personally say series are out because the value-add is merely cumulative. That is to say, a series, when it has concluded, is exactly the sum of its parts and no more. This is of course in the eye of the beholder. So is "key characteristic," for that matter. It's too squishy a definition for a professional association or funding body to adopt, that's for sure.

This is a tough line to draw objectively, but I think everyone agrees that this is a necessary line to draw somewhere. All of us want transmedia to mean something special. But we all come at excluding definitely-not-transmedia stuff with our own biases.

So in order to exclude the stuff that nobody is arguing (yet) is transmedia, we get the three-platforms rule from one perspective. From another, we get the single-story-start-to-finish definition, which draws from a very different commonality. One that arises when you fragment a big story into lots of little pieces, toward the green end of that spectrum.

The Real World

See, the more fragmented you make a story, the more likely it is you're going to be entering into the second part of my 2010 definition -- embedding pieces of story into the real world, and inviting very specific kinds of interaction and consumption. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, phone calls, live events. This is what makes for sexy, award-winning marketing campaigns and deep, immersive experiences.

And this is where I get my thrills. This is where you find writing-as-performance-art. It's where you find audience-as-agent. This is the thing that gets me excited about the power of transmedia.

But maybe I'm using that word 'transmedia' all wrong, and maybe I have been all along. (Just because it's transmedia doesn't mean it's good or innovative; just because something is good or innovative doesn't mean it's transmedia.)

Maybe we could just keep calling the deep, immersive, embedded-in-the-real-world stuff 'alternate reality games.' And we could use the word 'transmedia' as our umbrella term for all story in which fragmentation is a key characteristic. We ARG people would still be transmedia in that light...

...Even if we do nearly all hate the name 'ARG' to begin with. Even if it means transmedia isn't synonymous with deep or immersive experiences in quite the way we mean. Even if it puts us into the same category as Hollywood franchises on the one end of the spectrum, and even if that fragmentation takes place in only one medium on the other.

Would that be so terrible? What am I missing?

Questions All the Way Down

Unfortunately, transmedia-as-fragmentation still leaves a lot to be answered. Sorry, guys. I did say I was only whistling in the dark, here.

I just don't know where it puts transmedia marketing, for example, or transmedia documentary. When we talk about "using transmedia tools," are we talking about breaking something into fragments to induce seeking behavior... or are we talking about embedding content into everyday communication channels? Or even something else I'm not thinking of? For now, it's going to depend on who you're talking to. Which is the whole problem to begin with, right?

I suspect I won't even be internally consistent. Heaven knows I haven't been up until now. I'm still a little lost and confused, to be honest. As you can see, the debate is raging not just around me, but in me, too; I'm not writing out a new definition because what I think is still evolving.

But I know this is important, and I feel like I'm edging closer to something, even if I'm not all the way there yet. Here's hoping another year brings us all a little closer to consensus.

Your thoughts are, as ever, very welcome.

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